Song written by David Ackles
Performed by David Ackles
Anyone who has ever scanned through old photographs knows the power of the frozen moment from the past, but no other art form elicits loss, reverie, and longing quite like the combination of lyrics and music. Certainly, a beloved tune from our youth will always take us back, but that song that can make you feel someone’s loss and pain- that is empathy that builds our interconnectedness and our humanity. More than that, a song which creates fellow feeling for the disenfranchised must be acclaimed in any democratic society.
David Ackles was a master songwriter with a wicked way with words- just check out the rest of his debut eponymous record. I probably should not have selected only one song, but Down River is one of the great songs of loss and regret from the past half century. The accomplishment leaves many in the dust. Try listening to it on a long car ride late at night when your copilot is nothing but ghosts. Try singing along and just fight back the slow cracking of a polished exterior.
Record labels seemed to seek out great singer songwriters in the Sixties and Seventies whether or not they worked in the folk vein: Elton John and Carole King became famous, while Laura Nyro and Leonard Cohen had their followers, but they remained short of the top charts. Of course, there were Jackson Brown and Warren Zevon… and David Ackles. Did you ever see a David Ackles recording in a college dorm? Would you remember it?
When we hear one combination of sounds, we may recognize it as musical while another array becomes mere noise. Certainly, some of that is structure imposed on sound, but beyond structure is the recognition that a certain pairing of notes works while another pairing does not. Ackles version of his own song is a tremendous display of arrangement and production. Spooky Tooth covered the tune with a vocal drenched in echo and sung too high, though let’s focus on the gifts offered by the original. And I dare say that any particular affinity is always subjective to the observer in the given moment. When enough people agree that a given pairing is successful, then that consensus becomes popular appreciation. On the other hand, popular appreciation has not always followed great art. Hmm…
The trope of encapsulating one side of a conversation in lyrics is not terribly unique, but difficult to pull off without deteriorating into self-parody. Bruce Springsteen began plumbing it admirably from the very beginning of his recording career, but few could emulate his songwriting skills. It is a style that invites the listener in and almost demands that you take a side, either as the speaker or the responder. Moreover, the best of this format demands that you look at both sides of the conversation. Rosie is not wrong or right. She got on with her life. Our sympathies may lie with the speaker as his point of view is most clearly represented, but the brilliance of Down River is that you can feel his ambivalence. He knows that she made a good decision, even so far as not writing once he was sent away. Lest we forget, there is also that third party involved in their troubled relationship.
This is the poetry of pain and encapsulates the very difference between prose and poetry. Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants skirts poetry, but settles ultimately on the side of prose. By doing so, Hemingway places its tension squarely in the philosophical. We can feel that couple’s pain, but it is muted. The ex-con in Down River, on the other hand, takes us straight to the heart of loss. The combination of the music and the words creates that poetic moment, that emotional sustenance that can speak directly to the core of our beings. Prose allows that one step of removal from having to feel. We can view and judge based on that pause in synaptic response. The writer may have placed their heart on the page, bled the ink, but they also placed thought before feeling with the distancing mechanism of commentary. Poetry places heart before brain. Then combine that poetry with music and you mainline emotion.
You’ve Got to Check This Out is a blog series about music, words, and all sorts of artistic matters. It started with an explanation. 293 more to go.
New additions to You’ve Got to Check This Out are released regularly. Also, free humor, short works, and poetry are posted irregularly. Notifications are posted on Facebook which you can receive by friending or following Craig.